Exciting times in the world of chip design

PragmatIC remains at the forefront of the semiconductor industry as a result of our ground-breaking work with flexible microprocessors. Here Scott White, our CEO, talks about a recent project with the University of Illinois developing the first plastic microprocessor manufactured at commercial yield.

Background

ISCA paper

PragmatIC Semiconductor, in partnership with a team from the University of Illinois, has published a paper on flexible non-silicon microprocessors which has been presented at the International Symposium on Computer Architecture (ISCA). The joint publication has been greeted with huge interest from the tech community, including reports in the IEEE Spectrum, Tom’s Hardware and TechRadar.

It represents the culmination of a decade of work in bringing flexible microprocessors to commercial viability. PragmatIC and its partners have previously demonstrated the world’s first non-silicon Arm processor and also reinvented the iconic 6502 processor in flexible form, but these existing architectures assume a set of performance, power, size and yield trade-offs inherent in silicon. This is the first time that a microprocessor has been developed specifically for PragmatIC’s FlexIC Foundry® service, using bespoke chip architectures designed by researchers at the University of Illinois.

The research team, led by Rakesh Kumar, Professor in the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department at the University of Illinois, developed an optimised semiconductor architecture that successfully delivered a functional yield of 80% per wafer on PragmatIC’s commercial process for flexible integrated circuits.

Optimised design

With PragmatIC’s ultra-low-cost semiconductor manufacturing, this type of optimised design can be made for less than 1 cent, opening up a vast range of novel applications enabling billions, or ultimately trillions, of smart items.

This work highlights the compelling opportunity for design optimisation with flexible integrated circuits. Because PragmatIC’s tapeout cost is orders of magnitude below conventional silicon and its production cycle time is extremely fast, it allows designers to quickly and cost effectively develop new semiconductor hardware products and improve them with each iteration – enabling agile design that is today only possible with software. Whereas in conventional silicon a tapeout cycle could take as long as six months (currently closer to 18 months due to global supply chain issues), with PragmatIC’s technology this can be done in a matter of weeks. This means that rather than overengineering to accommodate every possible future use, designers can efficiently develop made-for-purpose ICs.

As the Illinois team have shown, this means that designs can be optimised around the specific characteristics of our technology platform, leading to products that have the best balance of functionality and performance against cost and other target parameters. The paper illustrates this in the context of microprocessors, showing significant optimisation of footprint, cost, yield, and power consumption.

While our customers have the opportunity to use off-the-shelf or industry-standard designs and IP cores, as demonstrated with PlasticArm and the Flex6502, the full potential of PragmatIC’s technology can be unlocked by design innovation that exploits its unique characteristics to deliver novel flexible ICs that can be used to embed electronics in trillions of everyday items.

Next steps

With the publication of this latest research, PragmatIC has further reinforced its position as the world leader in flexible integrated circuits. It is now time for mainstream chip architects to embrace flexible electronics that allows them to create a range of exciting new applications not possible with silicon.

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Further reading

FlexiCores: low footprint, high yield, field reprogrammable flexible microprocessors

Flexible computer processor is the most powerful plastic chip yet | New Scientist

The Internet of Disposable Things Will Be Made of Paper and Plastic Sensors - IEEE Spectrum

The Plastic Processor - IEEE Spectrum

Arm’s cheap and flexible plastic microchip could create an ‘internet of everything’ - The Verge

Goodbye Mr (expensive and wasteful) Chips - The Manufacturer

Flexible 6502 Takes Us Back to the Future - EETimes